Academic journal article Gender Forum

Re-Thinking Wellness: A Feminist Approach to Health and Fitness

Academic journal article Gender Forum

Re-Thinking Wellness: A Feminist Approach to Health and Fitness

Article excerpt

1 A Christmas morning spent as a young girl comes to mind whenever she runs outdoors on a rainy day. She remembers how her family rose early, opened presents, then looked outside to see new snow falling - it was beautiful and they decided to go enjoy it. The whole family bundled up and headed out to a quiet, residential street. By then, what appeared to be light snow from inside a warm living room was coming down more like hail and icy sleet. Her little sisters were on their bicycles, and the rest of the family started offon a jog. She smiles today when she thinks of what the neighbors had to say later. She knows how crazy they looked, a ragtag group of six running along in bad weather on Christmas morning, dodging hail, laughing, and breathing hard. She remembers that day as happiness uncomplicated by age or societal expectations. It was visceral and childish - it was joy.

2 Fitness in contemporary society can often be accused of working in diametric opposition to such celebratory expressions of physicality. So often, physical endeavors are linked to pursuit of an aesthetic, with no focus on empowerment and strength. The National Eating Disorder Association estimates that ten million Americans suffer from some form of disordered eating. Physical activity has the potential to provide happiness and to celebrate the female body outside of dictates about what it should look like. If strength and movement are beautiful, not punishing, can the field of professional health promotion do a better job of communicating that?

3 To make wellness a useful construct, one has to deconstruct the vantage point from which it is currently, commonly viewed. Does pursuing self-care really mean color-coordinating sports bras and critically assessing waist size? When promoted in a healthy, feminist fashion, wellness can be a vehicle for individual, community, and social empowerment. One only needs to sit in stillness and take a few deep breaths to innately feel it - wellness is about physical practice. Inherently selfish, personal endeavors, physical motion and meditation provide pathways to connect the external with the internal, and to revel in what can be found in that space.

4 Physical practice for many women is a thorny concept, however. It is not as simple or as pure as it might seem at first glance, as anything dealing with the body and gender carries with it the weight of societal expectations and hegemonic ideals. Queer and trans scholarship to date has been critical of fitness practices in that they are often used as a way of disciplining the body and conforming to hetero-normative notions of attractiveness and slimness. "Women's empowerment through fitness is thus largely imagined in a very limited, individualistic, apolitical sense that does not disrupt dominant ideologies or structures" (Scott-Dixon 36).

5 Claiming that physical practice and wellness are ideal pathways to happiness can, however, be problematic for reasons outside of hegemonic beauty norms. Sarah Ahmed decries prescriptive happiness in her work on the subject. Prescriptive happiness exerts a strange, subversive form of pressure on individuals. Notions about what can and should bring what feeling work socially as directives or mandates that paint outliers as unhappy, troubled, and misguided. Ahmed's deconstruction of the notion that happiness is a universally agreed-upon state brought about by universally understood circumstances and objects asks us to think critically about the ways in which happiness becomes a form of thought control. Should every feminist person feel welcome in today's fitness arena? Should weight loss and self-loathing be accepted sources of motivation for joining a gym? Popular paradigms would have us believe that it is completely acceptable to judge ourselves based on Body Mass Index (BMI) and make fat-phobic statements amongst fitness-minded friends because to disagree renders one an outlier or killjoy (Ahmed 7).

6 The study of feminism as an opponent of general happiness is an interesting lesson in the power of this notion to shape the box of acceptable behavior. …

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